The Goldfinch (2019)

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We don’t say fake. It’s reproduction. Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley/ Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist) was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is taken in by the Upper East Side Barbour family whose mother Samantha (Nicole Kidman) understands his fragility while his estranged friendship with her younger son Andy (Ryan Houst) is rekindled.  She discovers an engraved ring in Theo’s possession and he returns it to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) at the antiques and restoration store Hobart & Blackwell where he recognises the lovely redheaded girl Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings) who was standing beside him just before the bomb exploded and they become fast friends. She is the niece of Welty Blackwell (Robert Joy) whose dying words to Theo were to take his mom’s favourite painting the 1654 masterpiece The Goldfinch from the bomb site and a dazed Theo puts it in his backpack and stores it at his home.  All seems on an even keel until his freshly detoxed loser father Larry (Luke Wilson) reappears and abruptly takes him to Nevada to set up house with live-in cocktail waitress girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Life in the desert has an alien quality and he is befriended by sun-hating Ukrainian Goth Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurian Barnard) who introduces him to a supply of mind-numbing drugs and alcohol while he himself has to deal with a violent father. Theo realises his own father is trying to rip him off and use his private school funds to gamble so escapes back to NYC where we find him as a young man working for Hobie selling upscaled faux antiques and reunited with the Barbour family:  Andy and Mr Barbour (Boyd Gaines) have died in a sailing accident and Samantha is unhinged by depression but delighted to see him again.  He gets engaged to her daughter Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) but before long finds out he is not her true love, while Pippa remains out of reach.  After a bad sale to vicious art collector Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) Theo discovers that The Goldfinch has been used as collateral in a criminal deal in Miami. When he runs into the grownup Boris in a bar he finds the beloved painting is not in the safe place where he stored it after all… In Amsterdam I dreamt I saw my mother again.  Adapted by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s bestselling Bildungsroman, I arrive unburdened by reading the 880-page behemoth, an overlength only deserving of Tolstoy or someone of that order. Even without that experience, this has clear affinities with Dickens and allusions to Salinger, carrying with it an understanding of the difficulties of childhood and the intensity of friendship in a narrative dominated by the symbolic qualities of guilt. This is the opposite of a fast-moving art heist movie. It has an endearing shaggy dog style only broken by the fragmented nature of the storytelling and a late slackening in pace followed by the sudden violence of the ending in Amsterdam where the titular painting is eventually located and subject of a wild shootout. Much of the pleasure is in the juxtaposing of alienating landscapes of arid desert and rinky dink city locales. Kidman and Wolfhard are rivetting, Fegley is quite impenetrable but that’s not a bad thing given the story and how it is revealed, while Elgort is rather problematic as usual. Some of these performances might have been more effective had the story been told in sequence. There’s a wonderful, sonorous score by Trevor Gureckis and, if you allow it, much of this film will bring you into a world of childhood and loss rarely portrayed on screen. This, after all, is about the look of love and the love of looking and their complementary rewards and the only mystery is why this particular painting elicits such desire.

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The 15.17 to Paris (2018)

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You Americans can’t take credit every time evil is defeated. In the early evening of August 21, 2015, a terrorist attack on Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris is thwarted by three young Americans on holiday in Europe. Their lives are followed from childhood at school together in Sacramento through finding their footing in life, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack when Anthony Sadler suggests they go backpacking together after military training in Portugal.  Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos wants to visit his penpal in Berlin and U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone joins them from the US and they are confronted by a gunman with 300 rounds of ammunition intending to carry out an atrocity on the 500 passengers … My God is bigger than your statistics. A unique project from Clint Eastwood, who has form in extolling the heroism of American servicemen (pace American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers).  Dorothy Blyskal’s screenplay is based on the book by Sadler, Skarlatos, Stone and Jeffrey E. Stern. What’s extraordinary is that it stars the very men who saved lives on the Amsterdam-Paris Express. Structurally, this posed problems because the incident to which everything leads only took a couple of minutes in real time. So, interspersed with a few scenes on the train as the attack unfolds, the bulk of the story is flashbacks and backstory – Anthony (Paul-Mikél Williams) and Alek (Bryce Gheisar) grow up with single moms in California until Alek is sent to live with his father in Oregon on the advice of the head teacher (Thomas Lennon) who believes the kids should be medicated for attention deficit disorder. Teamed up with misfit black kid Spencer (William Jennings) they love nothing better than playing war games and checking out WW2 battle plans. The teachers at their school (apparently with the exception of their history teacher) are male bullies which leads to unanswered questions about how these boys derived their special brand of bravery later on:  Anthony ends up working at Jamba Juice and enters his beloved military the hard way;  Alek joins the National Guard;  Spencer is in the Air Force. Spencer tells us with a smile when the boys first becomes friends, Black people don’t hunt. Their communication through their different paths is primarily via Skype. Anthony’s training is tough – he doesn’t get into his preferred area of service due to depth perception issues;  he has headphones clamped to him when the attack begins.  This is one of the ironic issues in the narrative, none highlighted because no theme beyond heroism is explored.  Since the real action is not until the film’s final sequences, the men’s friendship through adulthood is traced against their differing choices, with Alek winding up in Afghanistan, bored out of his brains doing the equivalent of mall security because as he relates, It’s all about ISIS now and they’re not here. The big irony of course is that it’s in their downtime that these soldiers encounter an Arab terrorist, on their European trip;  the moment of grace occurs when his machine gun jams as Anthony rugby tackles the assailant- a one in a million chance, Alek says.  There is only one serious casualty, Frenchman Mark Moogalian, while the terrorist has a concealed knife which he uses to slice Anthony’s neck, thankfully not fatally. Englishman Chris Norman was not hurt. The story concludes at the Elysée Palace, with real coverage of President François Hollande commending the men for their bravery. How amazing is that? The most exciting thing to happen to me on that train was meeting the son of a famous German writer who was reading the handwritten manuscript of a friend’s first novel. Who knows what anyone would do if something serious were to happen? This tells us and in precise detail. There is another issue at stake:  since he was a young boy Sadler was clearly preparing himself for greatness. That it occurred on a civilian trans-European train in the tourist season is immaterial. Islamic violence is now an everyday occurrence in the real world outside of battlegrounds;  it’s preparedness that matters. This is practically an experimental film and it walks a very difficult line between authenticity and dramatic tension but it is probably far too real to succeed as an entertainment.  These guys may not be actors and the narrative may cleave to actuality (even the scenic shots of Rome, Venice and Berlin) and the banality of real life (including poor line delivery) but when you think about it, they rock. Since you asked, the shooter, Ayoub El Khazzani, did not play himself.  There is a message in this film and if you didn’t get it, Hollande quotes Sadler: In a moment of crisis I would like people to understand that you need to do something

 

 

The Constant Gardener (2005)

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This is one we can save.  Assigned to a new post, reserved British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) relocates to Kenya with his new wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an activist for social justice. She is engaged on a hunt for the people behind a Big Pharma test of a dangerous AIDS drug being conducted on expendable local TB sufferers.  Her own child is born dead in an African hospital and a young girl in a neighbouring bed dies after taking the drug. When Tessa is found murdered out in the wilderness, circumstances point to her friend, Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), who has been agitating for the truth with her, but it is soon clear that he’s not the killer. Grief-stricken and angry, Justin sets out to uncover who is responsible for Tessa’s murder and in the process, he unearths some disturbing revelations – including that some of his cohorts in Government might be behind it. He also really discovers the woman he married … John le Carré is a remarkable novelist:  for five decades he has been writing books that point the finger through the prism of genre and in the Noughties he decided to take aim at the self-appointed God-like pharmaceutical companies that dominate so much of contemporary existence – and survival – and the countries whose internecine deals allow them to kill their own at will. Jeffrey Caine does a great job at filleting the story so it’s clear who the bad guys are – there are degrees of grotesquery here and it’s certainly not kind on African savagery either. A horrifying tale of corruption that, knowing its author, is all too true. Terrifically performed by the leads with good support from Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Huston. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. No drug company does something for nothing.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

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The second of Guy Hamilton’s outings as director (he did four altogether) this is James Bond verging on self-parody and hugely entertaining it is too. Sean Connery returns looking the worse for middle age. At the heart of it is some strange goings-on in the diamond market leading our favourite spy to Amsterdam (via Hovercraft!) where he encounters the smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St John, the first American Bond girl). It seems evil criminal mastermind Blofeld (Charles Gray) is up to his old tricks, this time stocking up to use a killer satellite. Touching on real-life themes of nuclear weaponry, strong women (look at those bodyguards! Never mind Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole!), cloning and plastic surgery, the American obsession with death (pace Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh) leading to some hilarious (kinda – unless you’re keen to be in a coffin) scenes in a mortuary and great use of Las Vegas locations, this is also the one with those fabulously fey henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd ( Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) and there’s an ending straight out of Road Runner. As close to a cartoon as Bond would ever get,  you’ll have forgotten that Bond is out to avenge the murder of his wife (in OHMSS) in the first few minutes: this is simply great entertainment. And what about that song! Adapted from Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.